Court hears church’s lawsuit over Washington state law on abortion coverage

Court hears church’s lawsuit over Washington state law on abortion coverage

The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building, home of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is pictured in San Francisco Feb. 7, 2017. (Credit: CNS photo/Noah Berger, Reuters.)

SEATTLE — A Seattle-area Christian church is fighting a Washington state law that requires churches to provide coverage for abortion despite their religious or moral objections. The law states that if the church also offers maternity care coverage to its employees, it must provide coverage of abortions or face fines

SEATTLE — A Seattle-area Christian church is fighting a Washington state law that requires churches to provide coverage for abortion despite their religious or moral objections.

The law states that if the church also offers maternity care coverage to its employees, it must provide coverage of abortions or face fines and criminal penalties, including imprisonment.

The case is Cedar Park Assembly of God of Kirkland v. Kreidler. The defendant in the case is Mike Kreidler, Washington’s eighth insurance commissioner.

Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona faith-based nonprofit group that focuses on legal advocacy, filed suit on behalf of the church March 8, 2019, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The law went into effect at the start of 2019.

According to the suit, the law violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause regarding religion “by targeting the church’s legitimate internal policies and religious beliefs.”

The District Court dismissed the case and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments in the church’s appeal in the case July 9 in Seattle.

“Churches must be free to operate according to their religious convictions, including the belief that human life begins at conception and is sacred,” said legal counsel Elissa Graves of Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Washington state has no legal or constitutional basis to force Cedar Park to provide insurance coverage for abortions — an action that directly contradicts the church’s extensive work in caring for vulnerable individuals,” she said.

The state of Washington argued that Cedar Park lacks standing to bring a suit in federal court and must show that it has suffered “an injury-in-fact that is fairly traceable to the actions of the defendant and that (its) injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. Federal jurisdiction is limited to actual cases and controversies.”

Called the Reproductive Parity Act, S.B. 6219 passed the state Senate March 21, 2018, and signed into law May 21, 2018. It took effect with health plans issued or renewed after Jan. 1, 2019.

It supporters said it would have an exception for employers who object to abortion on moral or religious grounds, but during oral arguments before the 9th Circuit, Judge Sandra Ikuta noted the law’s “flat ban” on abortion-free insurance plans.

The Cedar Park’s brief for the 9th Circuit said the law “contains no religious exception despite many religious organizations’ belief in the sanctity of human life and strong opposition to abortion.”

When churches protested the measure as it made its way through the Legislature, “the bill’s sponsor suggested they sue if they did not wish to comply,” the brief said.

“This extreme abortion-coverage mandate had its desired effect: Insurance providers began inserting abortion coverage into ministries’ health plans in direct violation of their religious teachings,” it added.

“State officials thus deliberately targeted houses of worship for mandatory abortion coverage and, in so doing, intentionally violated their religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life.”

The Cedar Park church said the Washington law is more extreme than the Affordable Care Act and noted the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld an exception on religious grounds to the 2010 law’s contraceptive coverage mandate.

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